Provision #677: Observations Matter

Laser Provision

After a week of travelling in northern Germany and Holland, I can testify to the power of observations. When you don’t speak the language well, or even at all, observations become paramount. They enable you to navigate your way through the country. The trick, for both leaders and travelers, is to suspend the urge to evaluate what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The more accurate and charge-neutral we become in our descriptions the better our experiences and leadership will be.

LifeTrek Provision

Guten tag! Can you tell I’ve spent the week in Germany?☺We’ve had a great time visiting old and new friends; most of all we have had the pleasure of sharing in the wedding weekend of a delightful young couple. We’ve known Luke since the time he was born. We’ve known his parents longer than that • since our college days, in fact. They have become fun travelling companions for us, and it was a pleasure to spend time with them again on such a special and significant occasion.

Janina and her family are all relatively new to us, but they could not have been more gracious, generous, and gifted hosts. We’re confident that Luke and Janina will share a happy and adventurous marriage. They are both filled with the spirit of last week’s Provision on curiosity. Since their education and experiences have anchored them both in the world of nature, he with wildlife management and she with forestry and soilology, they will never run out of things to observe and ways to contribute.

Hopefully they will learn to do that with each other, in the context of their marriage, as much as in the context of their careers. Luke just returned from a six-week expedition on the northern slope of Alaska, where he was tracking flora and fauna in locations that no human being has ever recorded before. The point was to create a baseline so the species there can be protected in the wake of increasing development pressures for oil and other commodities. I’m glad he and his partner were doing that; saving one little corner of the planet for us all.

I was struck by the work, as he described it, and the slideshow he put together of various vistas, birds, land animals, and plants. His job this summer was to observe. That’s it. Not to evaluate. Not to manipulate. Not to agitate, integrate, our extrapolate. His job was just to observe and to record everything that he saw.

That’s not to say that he had no emotions over the course of his six-week adventure. As he shared his slideshow with family and friends, it was clear how often he felt thrilled to see such beauty and wonder in the natural world. He also felt honored and privileged to be among the first human beings on the planet to observe these particular areas. And, on occasion, he felt distressed, both by cold and by mosquitoes. As time went on, he also felt the longing and proleptic joy of reuniting with his beloved in Germany for his wedding celebration.

These emotions and more were all part of the experience. But they were not to be included in the observational dataset to be turned in at the end of the experience. That’s not because they are unimportant; they’re essential. That’s rather because observations are the things scientists can work with to understand and plan for the protection of this area. As passionate as Luke may feel about what he saw and heard, that passion is not enough to change policy. When it comes to science and the public interest, observations and data are our strongest allied.

Yet the observations Luke collected would never have been gathered without that passion. It was the passion that sent him into and sustained him throughout his wilderness experiences (venturing out every day at 3:30 AM, since the early-morning hours were the best hours for observing birds). It was also that passion that made his observations so accurate and that, on occasion, informed even his instincts.

Luke had to look and listen carefully, noticing even the most subtle of signs and songs as to what was going on and where the birds were likely to be. You can imagine, then, that his slideshow was quite spectacular. Such observations are a thing of beauty, made even more so when told in the first person by the observer.

My wife, Megan, and I have had our own experience of this, this week in Germany. Although I had four years of German in high school, that was some 40 years ago and most of it has worn off. Megan has never studied German. So we have had to approached our time in Germany much like Luke approached his time in Alaska: as careful observers.|

What is the context? What images accompany the words? What are people doing with their eyes, hands, and other body parts? What about volume and tone? The more carefully we attend to such observational data, the better we get along in a country where we don’t speak the language. And the more German words come back to me with each passing day.

On our drive from Osnabr•ck to R•gen we had plenty of time to observe the sights and sounds of Germany. Among other things, we were struck by the number of wind turbines. Unlike Luke with his birds, I stopped counting after I reached 143 (in part, because I started to write this Provision!). The number and variety of the wind turbines, spinning away producing electricity, was far more prevalent than I am used to seeing in the United States. In fact, most of the time, in the USA, we see no such roadside evidence of renewable energy at all.

Observing those wind turbines generated a mix of emotions, ranging from excitement, to sadness, to hope. Excitement to see it being done in one place. Sadness to know it is not being done in every place. Hope to think it can be done in any place. Yet those emotions, without the data, are not enough to make that hope a reality. It takes observations and data to make the case for change.

So let that be a lesson to us all. As prone as we are to talk about what we like and what we don’t like, what is right and what is wrong, what is good and bad, what is possible and impossible, what we want and don’t want, what is causing things to happen and what is not causing things to happen, the longer we can suspend those judgments the better it will be when it comes to making our way in the world.

For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant where only limited English was spoken. There was definitely a bit of confusion as we tried to navigate our way through the experience. It would have been easy for us to get frustrated with them and them to get frustrated with us. But that was largely avoided. Why? Because we didn’t expect to understand each other. We all knew that we would have to navigate slowly together.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all learn to navigate a bit more slowly, on the basis of observational data rather than evaluative judgments? That’s especially true for leaders. We are quick to size up situations and to fly into action. We want results, and if we see or hear of someone who is “not doing his or her job” we want to fix the problem as promptly as possible.

But moving too quickly into action, before we have collected enough observational data, can often lead us astray. More often than not, we escalate problems by such highly-charged interventions, rather than relieving them with the creativity and curiosity that I have been writing about over the past few weeks.

If we hope to serve as great leaders, then it’s important to become greats observers. Forget your assumptions as to who is to blame and how to move forward. Take a new tack. Open your eyes and ears. Navigate slowly to get their more quickly. Then and only then will your passion become a path to the possible. Then and only then will your people delight, share, and contribute in making dreams come true.

Coaching Inquiries: What helps you to be a great observer? What helps you to suspend your judgments and your urge to fix things without all the facts? How can you move more slowly through the trek of life and work? Who could become your observation buddy? How could you better track those observations over time?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Thank you deeply for today’s Provision, Curiosity Matters; love it, laugh about it, and share it. 

I celebrated my birthday yesterday and reflected on who I am, what I stand for, and what I would like to do. Upon writing all those questions down, confirmed once more that my central essence is … curiosity! That’s what has brought me to working and living in Bogot•, New York, and Taipei and who knows where else. I share moreover an intricate curiosity on what inspires people.

I also share the curiosity about Amsterdam the city I lived close by before embarking on rooting up. What will have changed in the 12 years I am away? Still, even more curious, if I could drive “eyes closed” to Osnabr•ck where I passed time deliciously, did business on occasions and where I enjoyed one of my most interesting university excursions, what would I find? I wondered immediately how one of the hosts would be who spoke actively and fluently 18 languages and understood another dozen • talking of curiosity! I started a search on the Internet to find him.

Enjoy the German language and test from time to time how fluid you still are. When it comes to enjoying the world cup soccer on German radio and TV I still do well. You reignited my curiosity about the Enneagram and started learning about it.

Still, your Provision most struck a chord with me as I am writing a book on powerful questions in coaching. That requires a curious mind. And asking can bring us further than answers alone can. What’s more: I am investigating what happens if we reach for the right answers without asking the right questions. Thank you for the inspiration, gute Reise f•r Megan und dich und eine gl•ckliche und frohe Hochzeit f•r das Ehepaar. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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